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Surprise Canyon

Features: Surprise Canyon is a rare perennial desert stream flowing through the spectacular Panamint Mountains. The narrow slot canyon’s year-round stream flow, spring seeps, waterfalls, and riparian vegetation offer outstanding scenery and primitive recreational opportunities. The long day hike or overnight backpack up Surprise Canyon to the abandoned gold mining town of Panamint City in Death Valley National Park is one of the most outstanding treks in the California Desert.


The perennial flow in Surprise Canyon supports extensive riparian habitat providing a seasonal home to more than 70 bird species, as well as the rare Panamint alligator lizard. Flowing through the unprotected heart of the existing Surprise Canyon Wilderness, the stream is an essential water source for bighorn sheep. Limestone outcrops in Surprise Canyon provide micro-habitat for several federal sensitive plant species, including the Panamint daisy and the Death Valley round-leaved phacelia.


Wild & Scenic protection of Surprise Canyon would prevent illegal incursions up the canyon by off highway vehicles, which have in the past damaged and harmed riparian habitat, wildlife, and water quality.

Directions to trailhead: From Highway 178 in the Panamint Valley, take Ballarat Road to to the old mining town of Ballarat, turn left and travel north on the Indian Ranch Road for approximately 1.0 mile to the Surprise Canyon Road, BLM route P71. Turn right and follow this Inyo County maintained dirt road for a distance of 4.0 miles to Chris Wicht Camp. Park at the end of the road in the small parking area, and then hike up the wash through the slot canyon. You will need a high clearance 2-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive vehicle to reach Chris Wicht Camp. For more information, contact the Bureau of Land Management Ridgecrest Field Office at (760) 384-5400.


Weather and road conditions can change in an instant. Always check with the managing agency before embarking on a trip. Always hike with a friend and carry a cell phone for emergencies. Bring plenty of drinking water, food, and clothing for changing weather conditions. Let someone know where you are going and when you intend to be back. Remember, California’s wild places are beautiful but they can also be dangerous to the unprepared and unwary. The California Wilderness Coalition assumes no liability if you intend to visit any of the wild places featured in our materials.